Rabbi With Midlife Crisis Looks for Answers

Seeking Sinai on the Sawtooth Trail

Kurt Hoffman

By Niles Elliot Goldstein

Published October 13, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
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We both knew it was over. Though I’d been the spiritual leader of my congregation in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village since its founding in 1999, and while we’d weathered the horrors of 9/11, personal tragedies and a catastrophic recession together — as well as celebrated births, marriages and other joyous events — if I had to officiate at another bar or bat mitzvah, I’d lose it. After a decade of service, it was time for me to move on, and it was time for them to find a new rabbi who wasn’t bored and burned out. Two months before my final paycheck, I left the synagogue, New York and my wife, and spent a couple of weeks by myself in a cabin near Hood River, Ore.

My marriage, too, had been headed south for a long time. While I loved my wife, my heart told me that our relationship needed to come to an end. Despite the truth I felt in my heart, my brain was torn by the issue: “Why should I leave a situation that had become so… familiar?” I drank alone at night in my basement cave to try to numb my questions and doubts. If my situation didn’t change, and soon, I would continue to damage my body and hide from the difficult reality that I was depressed.

Oregon wasn’t an escape, it was a mirror — still, silent and far removed from the frenzy of New York City, a place I had grown more and more weary of after almost two decades of living and working there. I landed in Portland in early July, picked up my rental car, and drove east for an hour or so through the Columbia River Gorge until I emerged in the town of Hood River. Then, after stopping for supplies, I turned south toward Mount Hood and my isolated cabin that was tucked away in its foothills.

In my seclusion, I forced myself to face the life-altering choices that loomed before me. Within two months I’d be unemployed for the first time in my life. I asked myself, “What am I going to do next, a rabbi who has no desire to serve another congregation?” Differences with my lay leaders about our community’s direction, a lack of intellectual stimulation with my work, disappointment in the commitment of many of those I’d committed to — these were just a few of the reasons I felt dissatisfied. And then I turned to the more emotional and frightening question: Should I get a divorce from a woman I still care about? These two questions reverberated inside my soul day and night, whether I was on a hike, river rafting, going for a drive or watching the sunset. I couldn’t shake them — nor would I allow myself to. Was I about to enter a brave new world and free myself from the burdens of boredom and despair, or was I, like Ahab, a wounded man in midlife, pursuing the phantom of fulfillment that would either elude me or drive me to the ends of the earth — and, perhaps, self-destruction?

All I had were questions.


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